After Super Bowl Defeat, Ron Rivera Faces the Role of a Lifetime

Though many people remain outraged at the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, and deservedly so, we should all pause to marvel at what the spectacle of sports unveils for us to witness and experience. There is no greater sports scene in the U.S. than the Super Bowl. Without a doubt, the Olympics certainly deliver the pomp and circumstance of its competitions and ceremonies. But no other sports game enthralls its audience for a little more than three hours quite like the Super Bowl. There is no best of seven series – just one game to decide the champion of the NFL for a given year.

Perhaps Hollywood will cast a white actor like Charlie Hunnam in the role of Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera one day. Or maybe in the part of Cam Newton. But on Sunday, Ron Rivera and Cam Newton were played by themselves, and audiences everywhere should be happy about that.

It’s important to recall that while film can open our minds to new perspectives and insights, it is history itself that calls to be witnessed, both as it happens and upon reflection. Film can do this, but it can also get it very wrong. On the other hand, sporting events drive audiences into the narrative now – that space within the spectacle when the events we observe and the accompanying commentary we hear come together as a story in a viewer’s mind. It is a thrilling experience because it is live and, at its best, unscripted.

Rivera has earned all of the recognition he deserves, and we should all marvel at what he has accomplished, even though he did not win Super Bowl 50. We shouldn’t wait to celebrate him at a later date or wait for the biopic to come out a few decades from now. We have seen what happens when Latinos wait for mainstream America to celebrate their heroes. The film tributes come long after the light of the lives of these great figures have been extinguished, and their achievements faded from memory. It took more than 20 years after the death of César Chávez for a film on his life to come to fruition, and the best we could do was resign ourselves to the idea that it was better late than never.

We should marvel at what Ron Rivera has accomplished, even though he did not win Super Bowl 50.

Lately, there has been talk of a major film on the life of another prominent Latino figure, the great baseball player Roberto Clemente, but it still appears to be many years away from its release date. Hollywood loves to create and market films about Latinos at the border or in the milieu of drug cartels. But Roberto Clemente, whose life seemed scripted for the cinema, is still without a major film to his name. It’s no wonder that the Academy has a problem with the diversity of its major acting award nominees; Hollywood seems blind to the idea that Latinos have a myriad of stories to tell, coupled with the reality of an ever-growing Latino-identified audience. It’s no wonder that Latinos and other groups that the American film and television industries have pushed to the margins must work even harder to get their stories told. Often they must find ways of telling their stories themselves. The message to Latinos is clear: your dollars matter; your stories don’t.

However, Ron Rivera’s successful NFL career as a player and a coach has forced the media’s hand. Unlike Tom Flores, who led the Oakland Raiders to two Super Bowl victories as head coach, Rivera has the blessing and curse of an extensive media blitz that scrutinizes his every gesture and word. The same holds for those of players and coaches on both the Denver Broncos and the Carolina Panthers. In simplest terms, Rivera’s mere presence in interviews and on the sideline forces the minds of the viewers, some perhaps not accustomed to seeing a Latino in such a high-profile position on an NFL team, to accommodate the plausibility of more Latinos in the game in the future.

Moreover, Ron Rivera was already a winner even before Super Bowl 50. He was a part of the legendary, Super Bowl-winning 1985 Chicago Bears defense – a defense that many proclaim as one of the greatest of all time. In 2006, Rivera went on to make the defensive calls in Chicago as the defensive coordinator that helped spur the team to a second Super Bowl appearance. But he has managed to nab these awards and recognitions without much of the public’s awareness.

Rivera’s mastery of the game was tested against one of the most cerebral quarterbacks in league history.

That’s why his Super Bowl appearance as a head coach continued the significant presence of Latinos in the NFL. The Super Bowl grants visibility and recognition unlike any other sporting event in the U.S., which explains why advertisers spent 5 million dollars for 30 seconds of airtime during the game. Every moment the camera focused on Ron Rivera, viewers everywhere were confronted with the unassailable fact that a Latino of Mexican and Puerto Rican heritage had led his team and organization to a meaningful moment in Super Bowl lore. He will be immortalized in NFL Films as long as there is an NFL to speak of.

Moreover, Rivera’s mastery of the game was tested against Peyton Manning, one of the most cerebral quarterbacks in league history, but also against Wade Phillips, whose defense stifled Cam Newton and the Carolina offense. Rivera had quipped that the game would be a chess match against Manning. The star quarterback sings in insurance commercials and urges viewers to buy pizza; his wholesomeness sells. He is also widely seen as a player that embodies all of the sportsmanship and ideals of the NFL, notwithstanding the recent claim that he had human growth hormone shipped to his home.

Because the media often casts Manning in the role of the babyface (in professional wrestling terms), they have to find an adequate heel to complete the storytelling pair. In Manning’s last Super Bowl appearance two years ago, the sports media bestowed the role of heel to Seattle’s Richard Sherman. In the lead up to Super Bowl 50, the media attempted to position Cam Newton as the younger, blacker, and thus scarier counterpart to Manning. To his credit, Newton did not engage in such simplistic narrative role-playing. Ultimately, the game was less about the quarterbacks as much as it was about the defense.

The good news is that Cam Newton and Ron Rivera played a large part in how others will later shape their stories.

What comes now is mere speculation, but it must help Cam Newton at some level to have a Latino head coach as his coach and mentor, one who is certainly aware of perceptions and expectations based on race, ethnicity, or heritage. While Rivera’s and Newton’s experiences are not the same, there is much common ground and thus shared wisdom.

The media and the CBS broadcast team of Jim Nantz and Phil Simms did their jobs and attempted to weave the events leading up to and during the Super Bowl into an easily consumed narrative. The good news is that Cam Newton and Ron Rivera played a large part in how others will later shape their stories. Super Bowl 50 did not live up to their expectations. Still, they are living a dream they set in motion long ago, and this most recent Super Bowl should be a preview of more championship games to come. At a time when the lack of diversity is clear in Hollywood, we should revel in what Newton and Rivera have provided the world: a chance to see these successful men of color at the pinnacle of America’s most watched sporting event. Ron Rivera has forged the role of a lifetime for himself, one that he will play for quite some time. Hollywood should be envious.